Why I Stopped Hating on the Audi TT and Chevrolet Corvette
A writer learns to put her Haterade on ice.
If I were a man, I guess you’d call me an ass man. I like wedge-shaped sports cars. A pair of nice hips that are evenly balanced with an aggressive nose will always do it for me. Angles are good in certain situations—but only when used sparingly—and please, for the love of all that is artful, do not give me non-functioning intakes on the hood or vents on the fenders. No one wants to pay good money for something that looks like it came from the Pep Boys clearance aisle.
I am picky about the way my sports cars look. I like them to be a little more Michelangelo’s David and less Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog. Classic is great—postmodern isn’t. For this and other reasons, a confession: I never liked the looks of the Audi TT or the Chevrolet Corvette.
The first-generation Audi TT was cutting-edge when it hit the road in the late Nineties. It was like the Coco Chanel of cars: timeless, elegant, unique, tenacious. It thumbed its nose at the wedge shape, and rounded those sharp angles. Bauhausian design, wherein form and function met, suited the little coupe to a Teutonic T. The design dream team of Peter Schreyer, J Mays and Freeman Thomas—who also designed the new and divisive Beetle—all had a hand in the TT’s birth.
The truth is, the first-generation TT reminds me of the way I used to draw people as a child: four crayon circles overlapping for head, body and feet. Apparently, I didn’t believe in arms as a six-year old, but my mother thought I was a prodigy.
Dany Garaund, the chief designer of the third-generation Audi TT, had big, if not balloon-animal, shoes to fill. Sitting with him at post-dinner drinks one night, he asks the waitress to bring him a paper menu and a pen so he could try to change my mind about the design of the TT.
“Think of it as a fluid powerful movement, pushing the car in a forward direction,” Garaud tells me as he draws another circle. The original TT was basically a slice of a sphere. Take an orange and slice off one side of it—there’s the general shape of the first-generation TT. Garaund and his team of designers wanted to get back to those roots and break, albeit slightly, from the car’s second, less-heralded generation.
You may wonder why Audi designers decided to revisit the old styling. Garaund says it was “really about keeping the style icon alive.” The first TT was designed around spheres, a wave and what Garaud calls a “speed line,” a quickly drawn motion across a page. He had his team move back to traditional three-box styling where the cabin, body and wheelbase are all three separate elements that needed to blend.
“The idea behind Bauhaus design was that we have to be masters of artistry as well as craft,” Garaund says. With the newest TT, there are more “facets” than there were in the first generation, and while the wheelbase is 37mm longer than the preceding TT, the body is still roughly the same size. Garaund is insistent that it is not a fastback design like the second generation, and notes that the mass of the car has been driven downward, both optically and physically.
If the exterior of the TT still looks a touch cartoonish, the interior is the diametric opposite. The airplane wing-shaped dash, turbine-like air vents and the new Virtual Cockpit dash all scream “wearable Stealth Bomber.” Aficionados have decried the lack of physical gauges, but I applaud the elegance and simplicity of the de-cluttered interior. Audi uses video game-quality 60-fps graphics cards to ensure there is no flutter in the screen—especially under hard acceleration. You’ll be glad to know that all the needles tick up fluidly—as you would expect in any analog gauge.
This brings me to the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
First- and second-generation Corvettes are generally considered among the most beautiful pieces of mid-century industrial design. There’s a reason that split-windows and convertibles go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions across the country every year. Then—at least to my eye—the following C3 and C4 pushed Corvettes into the porn-’stached, Hawaiian-shirted, gold-chain-wearing milieu of the Seventies and Eighties. The C5 and C6 versions just piled on the bad. If you were middle-aged and afflicted with male-pattern baldness, you were the Corvette consumer.
Then, in 2013, Chevy released the C7, badged as a Stingray for the first time since the C3 generation, breathing new life into the Corvette brand. Kirk Bennion, the lead designer of the C7, says his team wanted to do away with the burden of the old design (the round taillights are history) while staying true to ’Vette heritage. That means keeping the curves, angles and the short-deck/long-hood proportions, and blending slippery-speed function and halfway decent form.
Bennion used what he calls a 100-foot view. During the design process, he and his team took various models to a football field-size courtyard near Chevy’s Michigan design shop, and they would look at it from all angles at least 100 feet—all to ensure that passersby would know they were looking at a Corvette from at least a block away. Designers of the C7 Stingray worked with round shapes blended with sharp lines to create the aeronautics-indebted design that we see today, and carried that same M.O. into the cabin.
With its all-digital, endlessly configurable gauge cluster and slightly canted center stack, the interior of the Stingray is driver-centric to a fault. It’s a lesson in all-within-reach ergonomics, with the goal of making speed accessible and relatively painless.
While Corvette still has work to do to shed its paunchy, gold-ringed reputation, I will tell you this: Bennion’s 100-foot strategy has worked, at least to some extent, on me. The more time I’ve spent with the new C7 design, the less it grates on me. I may even cop to liking it.
The look of the new 2016 Audi TT has done its work on me too, even if it still skews a bit too rom-com/meet-cute on the outside. These are sports cars and, yes, design icons that most would call tops in their respective classes.
I’m still flummoxed by the early cars, but the latest iterations have even made me look at them again with fresh eyes. Maybe that’s the secret to falling in love with something: to see it for what it is, and also what it has been.